Staying Sharp While Flying Less

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Everybody is flying less these days. Flight time in piston-powered personal airplanes is probably off the most due to the high fuel prices, but the economy and fuel costs are trimming flight hours for airlines and corporate operators, too. The noise office at my home base, Westchester County Airport just north of New York City, sends a monthly activity report to the owners of all airplanes based there. The primary reason for the report is to note noise complaints and the number of violations of the voluntary curfew. But all traffic movements for the month, and cumulatively for the year, are included.

The report divides traffic into scheduled airline, corporate and light general aviation. Corporate is a code word for turbine-powered airplane, and light GA is piston powered. Whether the airplane is based at the airport or is a transient is also noted. Touch-and-go landings are counted separately so only actual departures and arrivals make the normal traffic count.

The number of piston operations at Westchester has been in decline for more than two years. The piston traffic count for 2006 was off nearly 30 percent compared to 2005. Movements were down again, almost 20 percent in 2007. And for the first half of 2008 piston traffic is off again. And for the first time since 2001 turbine-powered airplane traffic is down, and so are the number of scheduled airline flights.

With less flying it can become a challenge to keep your skills sharp. It's less of an issue for jet pilots because the rules demand a significant level of recurrent training just to be qualified for flight. But for the pilots of personal airplanes the rules for currency are almost nonexistent if you are not carrying passengers. Even with passengers you need only three landings and takeoffs in the past 90 days, and a flight review in the past two years, to qualify as current. The requirements for IFR currency are a little more stringent but they stretch over six months, so you can go half a year without any time in the system and still be legal to fly in the clouds.

So, without any really useful guidance from the FARs, what should a pilot whose flying has been slowed by fuel prices and the economy do to maximize the usefulness of the time in the airplane still available?

This will sound like heresy but the first thing I recommend is to stash the checklist out of sight. Without consulting the checklist do the most complete and thorough preflight inspection you have done since your first check ride. It has probably been some time since you lowered the flaps and looked closely at the exposed track and mechanism. Probably haven't examined the brake pad wear real closely for awhile either. And maybe you never checked to make sure all required documents, including those "quick reference" guides for the nav systems, are onboard and within reach of the pilot as often required.

When you have completed the preflight then you get out the checklist and check that you didn't miss anything. If you use the checklist as a "do list" you don't learn much, and more importantly, you don't notice what you have forgotten because you read each item off of the list. But when you go back and use the list to actually check your completed inspection any errors or omissions will stand out.

Climb into the cockpit and do the same thing. Hide the checklist and use a flow pattern to prepare the cockpit for each phase such as preflight, engine start and taxi. When you believe you have completed each phase, consult the checklist and you will quickly see how "current" your knowledge is of what needs to be accomplished. Many operators use the checklist as a checklist instead of a "do list" in normal operations and I like the technique, but it is an even more important tool to measure proficiency when you are not flying as much as you like.

As for the actual proficiency flying, try to select a day and time when your airport is going to be the least crowded. It's a given that you are not going to learn anything sitting and waiting to takeoff, or being stretched out in a big pattern full of airplanes.

For my gas money I'm going to practice the flying techniques and procedures that I actually use, not everything in the practical test standards guidebook. For example, I can't remember the last time I landed on a sod runway, so I'm not going to waste fuel practicing soft field takeoffs. The same goes for short field takeoffs. There is no such thing for my Baron as a short field takeoff procedure, but every piston single I can think of has some recommendation that you don't need to practice if you don't use short runways. If a trip to a minimum length runway comes up, then you can practice on a longer runway before that trip.

What to practice in flight depends on what type of flying you do. I always fly IFR so for meaningful practice I would file a flight plan and operate in the system. Practicing instrument approaches or holds on your own can be useful, I guess, but I find that it is the rhythm of the air traffic control system that I miss when I haven't flown recently. For me good IFR practice is to file a flight plan and fly the trip. The controllers will supply the surprises, and maybe the weather will too, and you can fly an approach at the destination even if the weather allows for a visual procedure.

A number of years ago Flying conducted an instrument flying event at the National Intercollegiate Flying Association's SAFCON, which is a competition of pilot skills by university aviation students. Events include spot landings, VFR navigation, flight planning and so on. Richard Collins and the rest of us from Flying tried to think up difficult IFR flying challenges for the students -- all of whom were IFR rated and many with CFI-I tickets -- including weird stuff like a hold on the localizer back course at the marker. The kids were astonishingly good at every kind of IFR procedure that we could think of and had clearly been practicing a lot under the hood in VFR conditions.

Then, one year, the weather came up marginal VFR varying to just barely actual IFR. We decided to ask the participants to file a flight plan to a nearby airport and we would get a regular IFR clearance and make the trip in the system. The results were amazing. More than half of the pilots, including the instrument instructors, were totally befuddled. They demanded to know in advance the route they would fly and altitudes, and what approach would be at the destination. We told them we had no idea, but to file a flight plan that looks logical and see what clearance the controllers issued. When the controllers read something different than what the contestants filed, they were indignant, and some even insisted that ATC couldn't do that. We assured them that ATC can offer any clearance that works for it, and the option remaining for a pilot is to reject the offer and stay on the ground.

In flight most had trouble copying ATC instructions and were constantly surprised by what they were asked to do, such as change altitude. Even vectors to final proved to be a challenge to some pilots who could fly a DME arc on their own to perfection. What became clear is that the students had mastered the textbook world of IFR flying, but had little or no real-world experience in the system. So my advice to them, and to myself, is to fly in the system as much as you can.

When it comes to what actual airwork to practice to stay sharp I don't put much emphasis on the training maneuvers. About the only thing I think you can get out of stall practice is to remind yourself to raise the flaps and/or gear at the appropriate time after adding full power. I think steep turns are good practice for your instrument scan because you have to monitor the altimeter, airspeed and attitude indicator to maintain a constant bank angle, airspeed and altitude around the turn. And I think the ground reference maneuvers are best practiced in the traffic pattern where the artificial S turns over a road, or turns around a point, are demonstrated by precision pattern flight.

Since the FAA and passengers put great emphasis on landings to demonstrate skill and currency, they must be practiced. But I don't think it's the smoothness of the touchdown that matters most, but how you got to the touchdown point.

If possible practice landings on a runway that has glideslope guidance, either visual or electronic. Grade your performance on how you rollout from base to final in relation to the glideslope. A good grade comes when you are centered on the glidepath out of the turn from both close, medium and long distances from the runway. Being able to hit the glideslope from base leg demonstrates that your perception is good and you are visualizing the airplane's flight path, and the desired glidepath, correctly.

Airspeed control is essential on approach, but in non-jet airplanes nothing is gained by maintaining a slow Vref speed for miles on final. A better measure of skill and currency is to maintain whatever airspeed fits the traffic and conditions until you are a mile or so from touchdown. At that point you need to be able to adjust all of the controls to stabilize airspeed so that at 500 feet above the runway you are on target airspeed and not gaining or losing speed, or sinking or climbing. With experience it's not hard to do, but if your skills have rusted you will quickly find it tough to hit the target airspeed and glideslope every time.

If you are on the glideslope and on speed you will accomplish one of the most crucial parts of any landing, and that is touching down at the proper spot on the runway. Be it a greaser or a thumper, any good and safe landing has to take place at the proper point on the runway. A true greaser involves at least a little luck, but landing on target is an essential pilot skill and is the best defense against running off the end or edges of the pavement.

Finally, I think you should try at least one low-altitude go-around, sometimes called a balked landing. A balked landing is more of a certification maneuver that demonstrates that the airplane is capable of a safe go-around from the actual landing flare with landing flaps and gear extended. A last-second go-around is not something many of us do often in real life flying, and it can be demanding. The descent rate has to be halted immediately, full power applied, and in most airplanes, once the descent has been halted, flaps raised to takeoff/approach setting. Then once there is a positive rate of climb you raise the gear. In many airplanes the pitch trim changes will be huge and you will find yourself pushing hard on the yoke to keep the nose down while you get the trim changed. In some airplanes the nose-up pitch force can be so large that small pilots may not be able to hold the nose down and will need to modulate the power to control the stick force. If you handle the balked landing smoothly the first time, your skills aren't too degraded.

Let's hope sanity returns to the oil market soon, but until it does we're all going to have to make better use of the flying time available to stay sharp.